Urinary incontinence is preferably tabooed and struggles with many stereotypes. Not only the elderly may be affected by involuntary urination, but younger people may be on the patient list as well. The tabooing of micturition problems causes intense mental stress, the feeling of shame, and sexual problems, to the point of social isolation. Thus a comprehensive knowledge of the different types of urinary incontinence and the subsequent target-oriented therapy is crucial to making a diagnosis, so that patients are relieved from their psychological stress.
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Urinary Incontinence

Image: “inkontinEnte” by kgbdd. Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

Types of Urinary Incontinence

The different types of incontinence include:

  • Stress incontinence
  • Urge incontinence
  • Overflow incontinence
  • Reflex incontinence
  • Extraurethral incontinence
  • Functional incontinence

Stress incontinence is the most prevalent type of incontinence at 60 – 80 %. Incontinence is already diagnosed when only one drop of urine is voided involuntarily. In order to diagnose a patient with the different types, an extensive analysis of the incontinence and medical history is the first step towards identification.

Stress Incontinence

Patients who suffer from stress incontinence or effort incontinence in the initial stages lose small amounts of urine when coughing, sneezing, laughing, and during light physical activity. As a rule, the cause is a defective sphincter mechanism which is induced by a change of the angle between the bladder and the urethra. As soon as the intra-abdominal pressure is increased, involuntary micturition ensues. Three degrees of severity are discriminated:

  1. Micturition when coughing, sneezing, laughing
  2. Micturition during physical work, running, stair climbing
  3. Micturition when lying

The most common causes comprise injuries resulting from childbirth or surgery, intra-abdominal pressure increase caused by tumors or pregnancy, pelvic floor disorders, and uterine prolapse.

In order to diagnose a prolapse of the uterus, a gynecological examination is performed. The altered angle between bladder and urethra is visualized in a lateral cystogram with the help of ultrasound or X-ray imaging. Urodynamic testing is also used for diagnosis.

When an insufficient strength of the pelvic floor muscles is the cause of the stress incontinence, regular pelvic floor exercise (Kegel exercise) helps alleviating the condition and strengthening the pelvic floor, which may also be achieved with magnetic pelvic floor stimulation.

Additionally, weight reduction and estrogen administration may lead to the desired result. Estrogen may be applied systemic or locally in the form of a vaginal tablet. Further pharmaceuticals are Duloxetine which increases the activity of the external urethral sphincter, α-sympathomimetic drugs like Midodrine which increase the tone of the smooth muscles, and ß-sympathomimetic drugs which strengthen the contraction of the skeletal external urethral sphincter.

Surgery aiming to normalize the angle between bladder and urethra might be necessary for the second degree of severity or higher. Three different types of operation are available:

  • Marshall-Marchetti-Krantz (MMK) procedure: Suspension of the urethra and the bladder at the pubic bone or the fascia behind it.
  • TVT(tension free vaginal tape): Fixation of a synthetic tape at the abdominal wall which is positioned underneath the urethra.
  • Artificial urinary sphincter: Only performed in men; the sphincter is being artificially replaced by a sac which is regulated by a pressure pump placed in the scrotum.

Typical patients which suffer from stress incontinence are women. They suffer from stress incontinence particularly following a pregnancy, in case of excess weight (obesity), and during menopause.

Note: No urge to urinate, failing activity of the detrusor urinae muscle.

Urge Incontinence

In case of an urge incontinence or overactive bladder (OAB), even a lightly filled bladder results in a desire to urinate. An urge incontinence is present in 10 – 15 % of cases of urinary incontinence. According to the cause of the urge incontinence, three types are distinguished:

  • Motor urge incontinence
  • Sensory urge incontinence
  • Idiopathic urge incontinence

The cause of motor urge incontinence is a hyperexcitability of the detrusor urinae muscle resulting in involuntary contraction of the bladder due to triggers like psychovegetative stress such as anxiety or disorders of the central nervous system (brain, spinal tumors, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, longstanding alcohol abuse), whereas bladder infections, urinary calculi, radiation damage, or other alterations of the bladder induce sensory urge incontinence. Since often no cause for the urge incontinence is found, this case is referred to as idiopathic urge incontinence.

Note: The detrusor urinae muscle is dysfunctional, but the sphincter is intact.

The bladder contractions are visualized with the help of a urodynamic examination, urinary tract infections are tested with urinalysis, and urinary calculi are eliminated from the diagnosis with the help of cystoscopy.

When a urinary tract infection is diagnosed, appropriate medication is prescribed. In the case of an idiopathic urge incontinence, a systematic bladder retraining assigned initially; additionally muscle relaxants, antispasmodics, or tricyclic antidepressants may alleviate the problem.

A combination of stress and urge incontinence is referred to as a mixed incontinence.

Overflow Incontinence

When the bladder is overly full, an overflow incontinence or chronic urinary retention occurs, i.e. the pressure in the bladder exceeds the pressure with which the urethra is closed. As a rule, this is the case when the bladder outlet is constricted, which may be induced by tumors in the lesser pelvis, diabetes mellitus, medication, or spinal anesthesia.

An unwanted side effect of an overflow incontinence is the urinary tract infection because the bladder cannot be completely voided due to an increasing overexpansion of the bladder wall and an ensuing hypoactive detrusor urinae muscle. This may lead to a chronic kidney disease and uremia as a result of the reflux of urine in the kidneys and urethra. Overflow incontinence may be treated with the removal of the source which blocks voiding, the insertion of a suprapubic or transurethral catheter, or medication to relax the sphincter.

Particularly men with prostate hypertrophy and people with long lasting diabetes mellitus develop an overflow incontinence.

Note: The mechanism for blocking the urethra is intact, and the voiding of the bladder is disturbed.

Reflex Incontinence

A reflex incontinence or neurogenic hyperactivity of the detrusor muscle is diagnosed when the interaction between sphincter mechanism and central control of the urinary bladder is defective. Even external tactile stimuli may trigger the micturition reflex.

This neurogenic disorder is caused for instance by spinal disc herniation, paraplegia, myelitis, tumors in the spine, deformities like myelomeningocele or spina bifida occulta. Neurogenic hyperactivity of the detrusor muscle may also be a side effect of disorders of the nervous system  like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis, etc.

Medical treatment with anticholinergic agents or self-catheterization are possible treatments for reflex incontinence.

Extraurethral Incontinence

In the case of extraurethral urinary incontinence, micturition takes place through the rectum or the vagina. It is usually caused by a fistula between the bladder and the vagina or the bladder and the colon. The fistula is formed due to radiation of tumors or conditions like Crohn’s disease.

The fistula is visualized for diagnosis with the help of gynecological examination, cystoscopy, or lateral cystogram using a contrast medium respectively.

If possible, the fistula should be resected by surgery and the affected organs be reconstructed subsequently.

Functional Incontinence

Because the involuntary voiding of urine constitutes the definition of incontinence, functional incontinence is included in a complete listing of all types of incontinence. Here, micturition is induced by a strong urge to urinate. The causes in this case are external factors like the absence of a toilet, immobility, or mental disorders.

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